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Sundance movie review: 'Winner' makes powerful defense of NSA leaker

Emilia Jones plays Reality Winner. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Emilia Jones plays Reality Winner. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- Reality Leigh Winner has already been the subject of a documentary, a play and an HBO movie adaptation of that play.

Winner, which premiered Saturday at the Sundance film festival, gives her the biopic treatment in a fun and empowering way.

A biographical movie is not a documentary or objective take. Winner defends the subject as a righteous activist and makes a convincing case with the techniques of cinema.

The Winner family, including Reality herself, cooperated with the filmmakers though that is not unusual for still living subjects. So maybe this is Reality's own perspective, the perspective of the filmmakers, or a combination of both.

Emilia Jones plays Reality and assures viewers that's her real name in her narration. The mocking of the name her father Don (Zach Galifianakis) gave her is a recurring theme.

Reality Leigh Winner was involved with the production of "Winner." File Photo by Chris Aluka Berry/EPA
Reality Leigh Winner was involved with the production of "Winner." File Photo by Chris Aluka Berry/EPA

The film begins with Reality's 2017 arrest by the FBI for leaking documents from her job at the NSA which confirmed a Russian cyberattack on voting machines in the 2016 election. Then it flashes back to her childhood.

Don was always talking about political causes so Reality picked up the mantle, from freeing pet store puppies to rescuing a dog from a negligent owner. She learned Pashto after 9/11 because she wanted to be able to speak with Arabs and discuss their issues with America in good faith.

Zach Galifianakis plays Ronald Winner. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Zach Galifianakis plays Ronald Winner. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

After high school Reality joined the Air Force to learn more languages. The military promised to send her to Afghanistan to help translate for aid convoys, but never ended up deploying her there.

After basic training, Reality has to work surveillance at FT. Meade, translating Afghani phone calls to identify potential threats. Her Intel leads to drone strikes.

Connie Britton plays Billie Winner in "Winner." File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
Connie Britton plays Billie Winner in "Winner." File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI

Perhaps the most important factor Winner adds to her story is the toll this job takes on Reality. By the time she works for the NSA in 2017, she's worked for the modern military and is responsible for Afghan deaths, which weighs on her no matter how sound the intel.

The film also conveys the way Reality rationalizes her decisions. She obsesses over working out or doing charity but can't get an Afghani boy's voice out of her head.

Kathryn Newton plays Brittany Winner in "Winner." File Photo by John Nacion/UPI
Kathryn Newton plays Brittany Winner in "Winner." File Photo by John Nacion/UPI

Reality's righteousness is like a superpower. She knows history and has facts to back up her protests. It is special to be so astute.

According to the film, Reality also found that military service did not count for charities that required a college degree. She couldn't go to Afghanistan to help build wells for towns so the NSA was the best job she could take with her credentials, and it did pay well.

Susanna Fogel directed "Winner." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Susanna Fogel directed "Winner." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

The script by Kerry Howley, who wrote a New York Magazine article about Reality, and direction by Susanne Fogel have fun with the format of a biopic without going as overboard as the likes of Vice.

There are a few fakeouts which Reality quickly corrects with the truth, and breaking the fourth wall in the right doses. She skips over her basic training but recommends another movie that she feels depicts it accurately.

Howley and Fogel's film also deconstructs the complexity of Reality's righteousness. She's good at defending abstract concepts and strangers, but can be harsh with her own loved ones.

The Winner family become Reality's greatest asset once she is charged. Her mother, Billie (Connie Britton), goes on cable news shows giving interviews to increase the pressure for her release.

Reality's sister, Brittany (Kathryn Newton), can be frustrated with Reality's righteousness growing up. When people start talking about Reality's actions, Brittany begins to see what her sister is up against in the world.

Like any two-hour narrative, events may be consolidated. Ron actually died Christmas the year before Reality discovered the NSA document according to HuffPost.

The film can put those events within days of each other because it connects to the values Ron instilled in her.

A portion of the FBi interrogation appears to be verbatim as that dialogue also appears in the play and movie based on that transcript. The film also depicts some of the intense punishments Reality was subjected to in prison.

The facts are: the document exists, Reality Winner leaked it and served time. Though a hack was confirmed there was no evidence any votes were changed so the story fell out of the news cycle long before Reality was released from prison.

The filmmakers took the angle that Reality was right and used their medium to portray an admirable person. If viewers have any more questions, there are plenty of further resources one can cross reference with Winner.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.